Forwarded from Michael Yates

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jul 1 17:28:50 MDT 2002


(This will be published soon by MR Press. Look for it.)

Ashwin Desai, We Are the Poors,

The "Poors" of South Africa

The valiant struggle of the Black and "colored" people of South Africa to
end the system of racial oppression known as apartheid galvanized
progressives around the world. Through a combination of armed struggle,
nonviolent confrontation, strikes, boycotts, and international solidarity,
apartheid was defeated in 1994 and one of its most prominent victims,
Nelson Mandela, was elected president of the nation. Mandela's party, the
African National Congress (ANC), allied with the South African Communist
Party (SACP) and the largest labor union confederation (COSATUthe
Confederation of South African Trade Unions), promised a new day for the
poor and dispossessed majority of this rich African nation.

That free elections were held and that Mandela was elected president was a
remarkable achievement. Widespread violence and destruction were avoided,
and from this point forward, South Africa's black majority were now a
political majority as well. Given the seeming impregnability of apartheid,
its collapse and the ANC victory were astounding. As John Saul put it:

South Africa has been able to realize and to stabilize the shift to a
constitutionally premised and safely institutionalized democratic
ordermaking peace without suffering the crippling backlash from the right
wing, both black and white, that many had predicted and without suffering
the collapse into chaos or dictatorship that some had seen to be threatened
by the establishment of majority rule. Moreover, this political stability
was sustained through the five years of Mandela's presidency, reconfirmed
by the very mundaneness of the 1999 election, and has been carried
unscathed into the Thabo Mbeki presidency. A cause for celebration, surely,
on a continent where apparently lesser contradictions have proven far
difficult to resolve.

The ANC had used a revolutionary and socialist rhetoric in its struggle
against white rule. As late as 1989, Mandela spoke of "the need for some
sort of socialism to enable our people to catch up with the advanced
countries of the world and to overcome their legacy of poverty." The new
government promised that

The engine of growth in the economy of a developing, nonracial and
nonsexist South Africa should be the growing satisfaction of the basic
needs of the impoverished and deprived majority of our people. We thus call
for a program of Growth through Redistribution in which redistribution acts
as a spur to growth and in which the fruits of growth are redistributed to
satisfy basic needs.

Furthermore, ". . . In our growth path, accumulation depends on the prior
redistribution of resources. Major changes will have to take place in
existing power relations as a necessary condition for this new growth path."

This economic program resonated strongly with the dispossessed masses of
the country. Millions of people in South Africa were unemployed, living on
extraordinarily low incomes, subject to a host of illnesses and diseases,
going hungry, and living in segregated and substandard housing. The
majority of people were denied all basic human rights and were routinely
the victims of police and military violence.

The ANC has been slow to fulfill the promises it made to the people.
Indeed, as is the case for most poor countries, political independence was
not accompanied by economic independence. Most of the nation's nonhuman
means of production remained in the hands of their previous owners. Some
property has been shared with a new class of rich black South Africans,
many of them stalwarts of the ANC. Soon after being elected, Mandela
embraced neoliberalism and his government began to enact neoliberal
policies: cuts in government spending, concessions to foreign investment, a
high interest rate monetary policy, and dthe privatization of essential
public services. Ashwin Desai, author of the moving book, We Are the Poors,
put the matter bluntly:

Before long, democracy was more or less stifled within the ANC and its
Communist and trade union allies. People that couldn't be bought were
marginalized. It soon got to the point where you could get expelled from
the South African Communist Party for advocated Communism. Once the
conservative nationalists had cemented their hegemony within the party,
self-serving deals were done with local white elites and international
capital. By 1996 Thabo Mbekithen deputy president of South Africa, later
successor to Nelson Mandela as leader of the ANC and president of South
Africawas calling himself a Thatcherite and the ANC had voluntarily imposed
its own structural adjustment program on South Africa. Taxes on the rich
were cut, exchange controls dropped, and tariffs protecting unionized South
African workers from imports from sweat shops were abandoned. Around a
hundred thousand jobs were lost each year and a million alone in 2001.
Water, electricity, housing and health care were taken from those who
couldn 't pay.

It has taken the poor majority some time to understand that its former
standard bearer had more or less joined hands with its apartheid enemy. But
recently, the poor have begun to revolt, especially against the
government's policy of evictions from public housing of those who cannot
pay their rent and the cutoff or denial of essential services such as
water, electricity, and health care, for the same reason. The consequences
of the government's "austerity" have been deadly. Again, Desai states the
matter starkly:

By 2002 over 6 million South Africans were HIV positive and without any
access to the lifesaving medication that, even a not completely rabid
neoliberal budget, could safely satisfy. People were aghast at a comment
made by the president's spokesperson that medicines that prevented
mother-to-child transmission of the virus were undesirable because of the
healthy orphans it left the state to deal with. The majority of the
population are living on less than R 140 (about $15) per month. One in four
black children do not have enough to eat every day. Only 3 percent of
arable land had been redistributed and much of that had been given to black
commercial farmers and not to landless peasants. Over a million people had
been disconnected from water because they couldn't pay; 40,000 children
were dying from diarrhea caused by dirty water each year. Cholera returned
with a vengeance, infecting over 100,000 people in Kwa-Zulu Natal alone.
People starved in rural areas, throngs of street-kids descended on every
town to beg and prostitute themselves, petty-crime soared, and the jails
reached 170 percent capacity.

At the end of the 1990s, the "poors" of South Africa began to revolt. This
revolt was largely spontaneous and it was to a considerable extent
nonracial. One of the most important local revolts took place in the
township of Chatsworth in Durban, the biggest city on South Africa's east
coast. The residents of this largely Indian area began to confront the
government concerning evictions. Mass meetings, marches, demonstrations,
legal maneuvering, people's music, and the occupation of houses all put
public officials on the defensive. A defining moment came when an African
official berated the crowd and declaimed that Indians were privileged and
had no right to complain. An elderly woman protestor said, "We are not
Indians, we are the poors."  A new class struggle was beginning in South
Africa.

It is difficult in a short space to give readers the flavor of the "poors"
movement. Out of the desperate need for water, electricity, schools,
housing, and health care, ordinary people mobilized, spontaneously at first
and with deeper organization afterward, to literally take what they felt
they hd a human right to. People marched on the offices and homes of public
officials, often dodging police bullets and clubs, to loudly demand that
the government serve their needs as it had once promised and for which they
had suffered so much and fought so bravely. Ordinary people, aptly named
"struggle electricians" and "struggle plumbers" began to reconnect
electricity and water supplies for those who could not, because of
government austerity policies, pay their bills. They also began to
disconnect the power and water of public officials! Militant organized
groups blocked evictions of those who could not pay their rents. Ordinary
people began to break down the insidious barriers of race which the
apartheid state had so ruthlessly and cynically established. Ordinary
people took on large corporations when the official unions would not.
Ordinary people occupied the land that was rightfully theirs but which the
government had declared could only be had for market value. Traditional
religious events were put to new use, as when a festival of lights was
named the festival of no lights to protest electricity cut offs. Youth put
hip-hop music at the service of the struggle, and when people had no food,
they could use the community cooking pot.

The "poors" movement is still in its infancy. Many victories have been
achieved, but only a small fraction of the population has bee mobilized.
Yet even at this stage, it is possible to identify several important
aspects of the "poors" movement in South Africa.  First, as is true of many
social movements in poor countries, the revolt of the "poors" is not led by
what we might call traditional members of the working class. While COSATU
has engaged in various protests against government policies, the labor
unions have not been central to the new mass movements. Instead, the
unemployed, the underemployed, and disaffected youth have formed the core
constituency. Second, the "poors" have been largely led by women. Poor
women in poor countries are at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Often
brutalized by men, who themselves have suffered extreme hardship, poor
women are left to hold families together, finding whatever wok they can to
keep food on their table and a roof over their heads. Absolute desperation,
combined with bitter anger, has compelled women to not only participate in
radical activities but to lead them. This is of the greatest importance,
because it puts the issue of gender oppression at the forefront of the
larger class struggle. Social progress cannot be made if those most
oppressed are shunted aside in favor of a male definition of class struggle.

Finally, the "poors" have focused their fight on local concerns, but these
issues of evictions and utility shut offs are intimately tied to global
capitalism and the neoliberal assault on working class living standards. In
our daily lives, it is usually impossible to directly confront much less
defeat the World Bank or the World Trade Organization. But it is possible
to win concrete local victories, such as the return of an evicted family to
its house or a moratorium on utility disconnections. It is possible to
confront local officials and force them to back down, and it is possible to
change the contours of local power. These local struggles allow people to
empower themselves and, with support from sympathetic intellectuals and
activists operating on a more global level, to raise their consciousness of
what ultimately causes their misery and to link up with fellow sufferers
around the world. Global movements must originate at the local level, the
level at which people actually experience life.

If local actions are critical, at the same time, it is necessary to link
these up to larger struggles. The many local South African movements began
to do this in 2001 in conjunction with the United Nations World Conference
on Racism, held in Durban, South Africa. Groups began to meet and make
plans for mass demonstrations and cultural events at the Conference and for
making common cause with a wide variety of protest organizations. Groups
involved in protesting evictions, in fighting against privatization,
various socialist formations, activist student and faculty groups,
independent union activists, certain progressive Non Governmental
Organizations (NGOs), and the Landless People's Movement (which had
recently engaged in an unsuccessful land occupation) all decided to make
common cause at the Conference, both to show solidarity with similar groups
around the world and to show the world the true nature of the South African
government. In describing a powerful speech made at one of the preparatory
meetings by poet, international activist, and former prisoner with Mandela
on Robbins Island, Dennis Brutus (who walked out into the audience to
explain "global apartheid," a phrase which might resonate more powerfully
than the word "imperialism"), journalist Tracey Fared tells us:

By the time we left the meeting, there was a buzz amongst all of us like I
have never felt before. People were talking to each other. Suddenly so many
things made sense. Why our water was getting cut off and our people thrown
onto the street. Why our children had to pay school fees or else. Why the
local clinics had been closed down. Why Engen [an automobile company] had
retrenched workers to increase its share price. Why foreign companies are
happy to give Yevgeni's [4 by 4 cars] to local elites. Why our president
doesn't support the intifidah. Why the youth of the North are also out on
the streets and why our Minister of Finance hates them so . . .

One did not have to jet all over the world like Dennis to fight global
apartheid effectively. One simply has to start building organizations,
building power in the communities where one livesconfronting, militantly,
the most terrible aspects of your oppression. And after thatone must link
up with others around you, all over the world.

The South African struggles are also important for the questions they
raise. Like much of the globalization movement, the organizations around
which these struggles have developed are highly decentralized, make
decisions by consensus, and ebb and flow with specific crises and meetings
of global elites. How can such organizations be held together over long
periods of time? Will it be necessary for them to forge a common ideology
and a common strategy for putting this ideology into practice? It is one
thing to force a local government to back down over issues of life and
death such as housing and water. It is another to stop the national
government from pursuing the policies which lead to the shut offs in the
first place, much less to replace the government with people's power. To do
these things, will a political party be needed? If so, how will such a
party avoid the problems associated with such parties in the past, problems
which have given the whole idea of party formation such a bad odor?


Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org


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